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How to spot the signs of burnout at work

Last updated on 
February 16, 2021

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2020 was a year of pandemics and lockdowns, but it was also a year of burnout on a scale never before witnessed. Forced adoption of remote work introduced a multitude of new pressures for employee health and wellbeing – from isolation and economic insecurity, to complicated new ways of working and disintegration of work/life boundaries.

Addressing burnout early is essential for minimizing its impact, but the invisibility of remote work can make this particularly difficult – especially when you consider that not everyone will honestly open up about their stresses and anxieties. So, how can managers proactively spot the signs of burnout at work, wherever their teams are working?

Why wellness surveys aren't working

Burnout as a concept isn’t new; its prevalence and implications are well established, to the point where it has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years. But even though most businesses are aware of the scale of the problem – and committed to trying to detect it early with things like wellness surveys – why is it getting bigger and bigger.

The easy answer is that it’s a very complex, individual phenomenon, and using simplistic methods to try  and identify the signs of burnout is inherently flawed. Burnout comprises emotional, physical and mental exhaustion, and it’s likely that people suffering from it simply don’t have the energy to complete wellness surveys.

It’s important to remember that burnout isn’t static; it ebbs and flows. So, if an employee completes a wellness survey during a fleeting moment of calm, their answers won’t represent their experience as a whole. These types of surveys also tend to only focus on the passive forms of burnout, so again offer a limited window into what employees are dealing with.

Passive vs active burnout signs

There are two main types of burnout: passive and active. Passive burnout can be internal and external. Internal passive burnout involves feelings of disengagement, sadness and tiredness, and because this type of burnout is hardest to see, it’s the type of burnout employers look for in surveys. Some of the early signs of external passive burnout are drops in performance, erratic attendance, uncharacteristic interactions, missing deadlines, and expressing more cynicism than usual. When passive burnout isn’t dealt with, it can lead to employees becoming too despondent to even attempt to fix any problems.

Indicators of active burnout often revolve around poor self-regulation and harmful behaviors – things like stress eating, drinking too much and neglecting healthy habits like exercise. Because these behaviors are often hidden at work, this type of active burnout is also hard to spot, although it can result in more obvious signs, like absences from work. Some other warning signs of active burnout include being irritable, expressing frustration and unhappiness, and angry outbursts and impulsive crying. While it’s normal to experience impatience or irritation at work at times, it’s a red flag when it becomes a common occurrence.

It’s important to note that not all active burnout signs appear as undesirable – at least on the surface. While engagement at work is almost always viewed positively, over-engagement is another matter. When employees are over-engaged it can lead to unhealthy perspectives – for example, feeling like you’ve never done enough, chronic overworking or feeling like you can’t possibly switch off. During a time when the “always on” mentality seems more pervasive than ever, this is precisely the type of burnout managers need to keep an extra eye out for.

How to spot the signs of burnout

If burnout can be both complex and capricious, what are the best ways to spot the signs of burnout at work? Firstly, we should shelve the idea that we can weed out burnout with an annual (or even monthly) employee wellness survey. Instead, we need to pay more attention to real behavioral clues – things like language, participation and absence. The big problem, of course, is that these things are much harder to keep track of when we’re all working remotely. That’s why it’s so vital to gather remote employee feedback – so people have a chance to address any problems before they become overwhelmed by them.

Aside from taking time to regularly check in with employees and ask for honest, direct feedback, companies also need to look at performance indicators for insight. Every manager should have a solid grasp on who’s over capacity, who’s logging off late, who’s doing too much overtime, and who’s has too much on their plate – all common early burnout signs (see this article on how to track employee performance indicators). Having this type of data also makes it easier for management to watch out for other signs of burnout, like a drop in work quality or a lack of motivation.

Ultimately though, we need to fundamentally rethink how we approach burnout. Being able to spot the early signs of burnout is great… but being able to avoid burnout altogether is infinitely better. To get there, employee experience, wellbeing and development need to be an entrenched part of company culture. That means continually questioning company processes, policies, and structures with employees to ensure they’re actually built to serve them. It means finding out what employees need to thrive, and doing all you can to deliver it. It means realizing that burnout is the product of systemic failures, not individual employee shortcomings.

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